Trump praises armed forces, avoids politics in military-style Fourth of July display

"Our nation is stronger today than it ever was before," Trump said. "It is its strongest now."

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By Allan Smith

President Donald Trump delivered a speech Thursday long on praise for America and its armed forces and devoid of the highly political content critics feared he would inject into his taxpayer-funded Fourth of July extravaganza.

Trump, who spoke for nearly an hour at his "Salute to America" military-inspired event, which included tanks parked outside the Lincoln Memorial, stocked his remarks with historical anecdotes about each branch of the military and musical interludes to allow warplanes and helicopters to roar over the large crowd gathered on the National Mall.

"Today, we come together as one nation with this very special salute to America," Trump said after taking the stage to chants of "USA." "We celebrate our history, our people, and the heroes who proudly defend our flag — the brave men and women of the United States military."

"Our nation is stronger today than it ever was before," Trump added, earning loud applause.

"It is its strongest now," he said.

As the president walked out, holding hands with first lady Melania Trump, Air Force One flew over the large crowd assembled on the National Mall.

Throughout his remarks, Trump praised existing military branches and promised that “very soon, the space force” would join them.

"Someday soon, we will plant the American flag on Mars," he said.

The president also name-checked a number of prominent historical American figures like Alexander Graham Bell, Harriet Tubman, Thomas Edison and John Glenn.

"Douglass — you know — Frederick Douglass," Trump said of the 19th century African-American activist. "The great Frederick Douglass."

A B-2 Spirit plane (C) escorted by two F-22 Raptors fly past Lincoln Memorial during the "Salute to America" Fourth of July event on July 4, 2019.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

Trump, who received multiple draft deferments during the Vietnam War, urged young Americans to join the military, saying doing so would "make a truly great statement in life."

"You should do it," Trump said.

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After, Trump invited Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper up to join him on stage. They stood on either side of Trump as he recited the heroics of members of the Coast Guard on D-Day and introduced the air assets the crowd would soon see — an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter, an MH-65 Dolphin helicopter and a C-130 turboprop plane.

The Air Force flyover was next, with two F-22 Raptor planes flanking a B-2 stealth bomber. As the roar of the planes faded, more cheers of "USA! USA!" broke out. The third flyover was courtesy of the Navy, the fourth, the Marine Corps.

Trump previewed one of those air assets as a VH-92 helicopter — soon to be the new Marine One, the presidential helicopter. The Marine Corps has said it is currently in the testing and evaluation phase in Maryland.

The Army provided the fifth flyover made up of four Apache helicopters, with the Navy Blue Angels aerial acrobatics team finishing the display with six F-18 Hornets.

Ahead of each flyover, Trump offered up a short history of the wartime heroics and efforts of each branch of the military, running from the Revolutionary War through the present day. When mentioning the Navy SEALs, Trump noted their involvement in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War, saying the Vietnamese "don’t want to see our force again."

In a preamble ahead of the branch's helicopter flyover, Trump claimed the Army "took over the airports" during the American Revolution. He also made mention of the battle of Fort McHenry — which took place in the War of 1812 — during this riff on the Revolutionary War.

"In June of 1775, the Continental Congress created a unified Army out of the Revolutionary Forces encamped around Boston and New York, and named after the great George Washington, commander in chief," Trump said. "The Continental Army suffered a bitter winter of Valley Forge, found glory across the waters of the Delaware and seized victory from Cornwallis of Yorktown."

"Our Army manned the air, it rammed the ramparts, it took over the airports, it did everything it had to do, and at Fort McHenry, under the rocket’s red glare it had nothing but victory," he continued. "And when dawn came, their star-spangled banner waved defiant."

Although a steady rain fell at the Lincoln Memorial throughout the day, many guests were told they could not bring umbrellas inside the event, leading many attendees sporting colorful ponchos or simply wearing hats instead.

An earlier downpour soaked those who arrived early to the event and created some uncertainty over whether the military flyovers would be able to take place as planned. The National Weather Service had issued a flash-flood watch that was active until 8 p.m. for parts of the nation's capital and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, The Associated Press reported.

Critics of what Trump said would be the “show of a lifetime” raised concerns about the cost to taxpayers, the appearance of politicizing a traditionally non-partisan celebration and worries that the military is being used as a political prop. But the president refrained from mentioning anything overtly political during the event.

"Given what we just saw, it's a little hard to understand why the president spent so much time and taxpayer resources on putting himself at the center of America's Independence Day celebration," Jordan Libowitz, communications director for the ethics watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told NBC News in a statement. "Then you remember the hotel with his name on it a few blocks from the White House that more than doubled its rates around the holiday, now charging more than double its competitors."

In the days leading up to the event, CREW outlined all the ways Trump's "Salute to America" could violate federal laws like the Hatch Act.

"I have to give him credit, though," Walter Shaub, a senior adviser at CREW and a former director of the Office of Government Ethics under Trump and former President Barack Obama, tweeted in the middle of Trump's speech. "So far, he's sticking to this dry as melba toast speech and resisting the temptation to riff. We must have scared him straight. He doesn't want his campaign to have to repay the government the millions he'd owe if he got political."

Protesters were out in force ahead of the event. Code Pink, an anti-war organization, put up a 20-foot-tall diaper-clad balloon of an infant Trump in the shadow of the Washington Monument, the Associated Press reported — though the "Baby Trump" blimp was later deflated amid stormy weather.

Lance Simon, an 65-year-old attendee from Rockville, Maryland, told NBC News he opted to join the festivities to voice his displeasure with Trump's display.

"I’m here for my kids, for my family, for my community who just have had enough, we just have to speak up and that is why am here," Simon said.

Shekinah Hollingsworth, a 24-year-old Trump supporter wearing a hat emblazoned with the president's 2016 campaign slogan "Make America Great Again," told NBC News she went to the event to "celebrate my country with the president of the United States."

"I think just the topic of nationalism and patriotism has been so politicized and honestly I think we need more events like this just to bring people together," she said, "because ultimately, the Fourth of July is just about celebrating the country and it is sad that we are seeing that more from one side than another."

Hollingsworth said she did not mind tax dollars going toward the event because it was intended for everyone.

"Anybody can come here, anybody can participate," she said. "Now I think that this crowd has been really welcoming of people being able to come in and express thoughts about how they feel about President Trump, or whatever is going on in the moment, so I do not mind that tax dollars are going towards something like this."

President Donald Trump speaks alongside acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper, left, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford during the "Salute to America" Fourth of July event at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP - Getty Images

Two Trump re-election campaign officials told NBC News Thursday that the "Salute to America" would not be documented for future campaign ads or video, calling it "entirely an official White House event."

Back at the White House, Trump tweeted a photo of the crowd gathered at the National Mall.

"A great crowd of tremendous Patriots this evening, all the way back to the Washington Monument!" he said.

Emma Barnett and Monica Alba contributed.